Steve often talks about his so-called 'nemesis bird', the one species that no matter how hard he looks, he just cannot see - the Indian pitta. He has spent over two years of his life in India and Sri Lanka, and this bird always eludes him. In this trip, one small newly created national park that we stumbled upon is known for having numerous migratory pittas throughout the winter months...and we arrived one week after they left. Poor Steve.
As for me, I seem to have found my nemesis language.
Growing up, I had no trouble learning French. In university, I took German and Spanish classes, and quickly learned to read and understand those languages, and although I can no longer speak them due to lack of practice, I can still read some German and can usually understand or at least get the gist of written Spanish. I also studied Russian and Italian on my own, and can still read a little of the latter. The three times I lived in northern Canada, I learned basic Inuktitut, some Cree, and a little Chipewyan, and had no trouble learning those. Even today, almost twenty years later, I can often read and understand what my Inuit friends are saying in Inuktitut on Facebook, although I have forgotten most of the language for speaking. (Just last month, for example, I was part of a conversation about walrus meat.) When I was in China I learned enough Mandarin in six weeks to be able to go shopping, order in restaurants, ask directions, read maps and street signs, and (most importantly!) find the restrooms. About a year and a half ago I began doing volunteer work for my church, where I answer the questions that people send in to the main church website. I found that my language experience was very useful, as I am able to understand the questions asked in many languages, and using a translation program, am able to respond in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Italian and German. More importantly, perhaps, I am usually able to tell when the machine translation is poorly done, meaning that I have to tweak the answer in English so that it makes sense in the other language.
But Sinhala? Boy. This language just does not stick with me. I have tried phrase books. I have tried several 'Learn Sinhalese' textbooks. I have tried just looking up random words in the dictionary to get me started. Even the text that Steve swears by has been of no use to me...I have read and reread and studied chapter one a dozen times, and every time, it's like I have never seen the words before.
It's been most frustrating.
What is weird about the whole thing is that I have daily conversations with our driver, with him speaking Sinhala and me speaking English. I understand at least the gist, and sometimes more than that, of the sermons and lessons at church. Usually I can join in the conversation (again, in English while they speak Sinhala interspersed with a little English) in the weekly women's meeting.
I have managed, however, to learn a (very) few words. Mostly food related, but hey, at this point I'll take whatever I can get!
So I was pleasantly surprised when I went shopping today and had my first real conversation.
It went like this:
Me: Do you have any batteries?
Clerk: Oh. [Yes]
Me: (shows package of lithium batteries) This kind?
Clerk: (gets package and puts it on the counter) Oh.
Me: How much?
Clerk: 750 rupees.
Me: (raises eyebrows) Okay. (points to package) batteriyah ekak tunsiyah [One battery 300]
Clerk: (waggles head in the decidedly South Asian style that indicates agreement)
Me: mama tunay packages [I (need) three packages]
Clerk: 1800 rupees
Me: But 750 times 3 is 2250 rupees.
Clerk: I know. (smiles and winks at me) But you pay 1800 only.
A savings of 450 rupees for trying a few words in Sinhala. I was pretty pleased with myself.